Sex, Work & Autonomy

On June 11, 2012 by admin

Anchita Ghatak


Sex work continues to be a vexing issue.  Abolitionists feel that prostitutes or prostituted women are victims of the worst possible kind of sexual exploitation and prostitution should not exist. They will not use the term ‘sex work’ or ‘sex workers’ because they believe that giving exploitation the dignity of work and victims the dignity of workers is supporting and perpetuating exploitation.

The other day, I was speaking to an eminent Abolitionist activist, who told me that she had never met a woman who had entered sex work of her own accord and willingly adopted the epithet of sex worker. I replied that I had met several.

It is important to remember that many places across the world have seen demonstrations by sex workers and their allies, where people in sex work- women, men, transpersons- have demanded an end to stigmatisation and criminalization, recognition as workers and rights as workers. There are some countries where prostitution is legal. At the outset, I would like to state that while sex workers are not exclusively women, much of this article will focus on women sex workers.

Activists who believe that ‘prostitution’ should be abolished, usually work against trafficking. Implicit in their anti-trafficking approach is the belief that trafficking is synonymous to prostitution. Organisations / individuals who work for the rights of sex workers also work against trafficking. They say that human trafficking sells people into forced labour and is a crime.

Working to establish sex workers rights, activists, many of them sex workers themselves, have focused on the discrimination, injustice and violence that exist in the sex trade. They have drawn attention to the injustice and harassment sex workers face from the state, their families, pimps and madams, to name a few. They have not tried to portray the arena of sex work as a great and glorious place. They say that many women earn a living as sex workers and their work should be recognized as work and there should be norms and regulations in place that enable women to earn a living in a safe conditions.

Many sex workers’ organizations have pointed out that they are against children being in sex work, or any kind of work, for that matter. Children should be in school and not at work. Adults who are in sex work or join sex work should make informed choices – that includes the decision to join or not join sex work, to engage in sex work and any other occupation(s), to leave sex work and so on.

Gloria Steinem in a recent meeting in Kolkata told me that body invasion is intrinsic to sex work and so, it is not right to see prostitution as just another occupation in the unorganized sector, where working conditions are unjust and often, inhuman. It is difficult for me and many other feminists to agree with Steinem’s position. The sex worker is selling sexual services – that is her work. She has entered into a contract with her customer to provide sexual services. It is a transaction between consenting adults. To say that the sex worker is being invaded by the very nature of  her work, is to deny her agency. In an article, in The Hindu, Steinem disagrees with the proposition that a sex worker is consensually selling sex. She says, “also I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality. Even sexual harassment law requires that sexual attention be “welcome,” not just “consensual.” It recognizes that consent can be coerced.” If consent is coerced, it is not consent, surely?

Harassment and violence in the workplace is a reality. Struggles against sexual harassment in the workplace are going on everywhere. It is imperative to remember that like all women workers, sex workers too have a right to a harassment free and violence free workplace.

Asking for customers of sex workers to be criminalised is a forceful way of denying women control over their choice of livelihoods. Saying that the very act of a woman selling sex is violence and exploitation is as paternalistic a point of view as saying that there can be nothing called marital rape. It is necessary to have a situation where the buying and selling of sexual services is not a furtive, criminal activity. It is such a social climate that will enable sex workers to lay down safe working conditions and bring clients to book if they violate agreed conditions.

One has come across news reports, where governments in Northern countries have apparently told women on unemployment benefits that they have to become ‘sex workers’  as sex work is work like any other. Abolitionists often use such examples to argue against adopting the term ‘sex work’ and seeing it as a legitimate arena of work. Surely, this is not the first time that the patriarchal state machinery has appropriated the language of women’s liberation to oppress women? The question here is whether citizens have any element of choice when they are offered jobs instead of unemployment benefits.

Abolitionists, as well as those who work for the establishment of sex workers’ rights, agree that if women on the margins have to assert their rights their choices have to expand and they must have access to education, healthcare, food, shelter and safe employment opportunities. It is in the area of employment that there is a sharp difference of opinion.

Amongst abolitionists, there is a slight moving away from the term prostitution to survival sex. The question of women’s sexual autonomy in marriage is a vexed question. Is it only ‘prostitutes’ who engage in sex for survival?

Sex workers have been categorical that they do not support people being coerced into sex work even if it is a caste based occupation. They are clear that while women have the right to opt to earn a living as a sex worker, they also have a right to refuse to do so. Like women workers in the unorganised sector – domestic workers, construction workers, piece rate factory workers, farm labourers – they want to be free of stigma, criminalisation and exploitation.

It is necessary to understand why it is alright for women to sell their intellectual and physical labour but the selling of sexual labour is viewed with horror. Surely a decision to sell or not sell sexual services by a woman is a step towards sexual autonomy?


Anchita Ghatak is a development professional and a women’s rights activist. She works on issues of poverty, development and rights. She is the Secretary of Parichiti, an organisation working for the rights of marginalised women and girls, especially  domestic workers. 







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